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Promoting Democracy and Demoting Autocracy

In the Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics, my good friend Eghosa Osaghae wrote a compelling chapter about Nigeria’s “epochs.” I have been thinking about the epochs associated with democracy and governance assistance, and democracy promotion in general. In the early years, much of this work was viewed with suspicion. Members of President Carter’s national security team had advocated for human rights as a wedge of sorts against the Soviet Union, not necessarily for advancing democracy. In the 1980s, the intelligence community stirred up a violent mess in Nicaragua’s neighborhood. My good friend, David MacMichael, the CIA’s Senior Estimates Officer for Central America (who recently passed away), testified before the World Court about the contra’s violations of international law. Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski regularly called for abolishing the National Endowment for Democracy.

Civil society activists from Nigeria speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy in October 2022

Then in the 1990s an emphasis on civil society emerged, in part because some of the early democratization successes at that time came from activists in places such as Benin and Poland – many of whom had little connection to the US. In Washington there was a presumption that nations needed a strong civil society as a counterforce to strong states that had only recently been undemocratic. This overlapped with western efforts to encourage free markets, so the left’s suspicion lingered on – often validated in by the pain from Structural Adjustment Programs.

When I arrived in Nigeria at the end of the decade, the democracy industry was focused on “capacity building,” a sensible shift that led to a state-bias of sorts when Bush launched the war on terror. Strong states were needed to defeat non-state actors like al-Qaeda, and this mean the projection of state sovereignty over space. So there were lots of discussion about “ungoverned spaces” with the assumption that they were breeding grounds for violent movements. Stewart Patrick helpfully cast doubt on this in Weak Links. Nevertheless, “strong states” were back in vogue.

At work in Nigeria’s National Assembly, June 2000

The current epoch rests on previous capacity building efforts, some of which were successful. For example, skills transfer is less central compared to cooperation; there appears to be a stronger sense of equality between the donor and the recipient in D&G work. In Nigeria, many local partners are now implementing work that was once the domain of beltway bandits, doing a lot of the heavy lifting and technical implementation. This is progress.

But as Chris Walker and others have pointed out, now democracy promotion coexists alongside an internationalization of autocracy. All of the above work on behalf of democracy operated on alliances with state reformers, civil society, and private sector actors who favored democracy. (On the latter I recommend Leo Arriola’s book, which shows how important business coalitions in Africa are for emergent opposition parties.) Transnational diffusion was part of democratization, as Levitsky and Way demonstrated. But from the practical point of view of democracy assistance, the US could until recently focus primarily – not entirely – on domestic conditions.

In conversations with USG officials over the last few months, I have emphasized that in the context of authoritarianism being actively exported, we can no longer presume a strong international norm that elections must be free and fair. The power of embarrassment and external legitimacy brought by international observer missions is weaker than it was just a few years ago. IOMs cannot be business as usual, following a template of optimism about youth, technical support for parallel vote counts, and party pledges to engage in peaceful campaigns – though all of those things are still necessary. (Both Afrobarometer and World Values surveys show some alarmingly weak support for democracy among youth.) The shock of the Ukraine war caught the democracy promotion industry off guard. Suddenly, exporting autocracy is not just about “sharp power” sharing of technology for spying on activists or shutting down the internet – it went kinetic. Countries are actively exporting autocracy, and the true meaning of Russia’s war in Ukraine is that they are willing to do it by force if necessary.

Shortly after the invasion began, I joined a call with democracy activists in Ukraine, who pleaded with the audience: we are not simply defending our country, we are defending democracy for you as well. Freedom House makes precisely that point in a new report.

How should democracies and democrats respond? The State Department’s Global Engagement Center is promising, a place where USG can counter mis/disinformation. I was also inspired by Larry Diamond’s recent call at a DC event for a new “USIA on steroids.” But the programmatic and organizational work to counter authoritarianism needs to flow from a broader strategy, and this broader vision still has not quite emerged from President Biden’s Democracy Summit and the related follow-up. This should follow from rich, innovative thinking about the relationship between information and participation, with the presumption that fact checking will not be enough. To understand how to confront fake news and disinformation, foreign policy will need a new wave of social science research that scales up findings that are slowly emerging from psychology about how to change people’s minds. (Kudos to Samantha Power for placing a behavioral economist into a high ranking position at USAID this week.) The vision must also include resources and policy guidelines for what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is calling “anti-coup” strategy. I was encouraged by the strong language in the White House’s Africa Strategy saying that the US “will condemn human rights violations and coups by security forces….” But I was then discouraged by the State Department’s recent response to Burkina Faso. The word “coup” appears nowhere in the October 1 statement on “the situation in Burkina Faso.” It should have.

To connect all this with a broader foreign policy, traditional D&G implementers need to sustain a level of independence from the USG which risks being lost in the scramble for contracts. The Democratic Erosion project is an important step in that direction. There is a danger that a new era of democracy promotion could spillover into the more antagonistic elements of grand strategy vis-à-vis China or Russia. This would unfortunately not merely be a competition of ideas or models of governance. We don’t want a new cold war.

Biden’s African Leaders Summit needs to be a venue for bringing together conceptual thinking, shared strategic principles. The programmatic work of D&G traditionally thrives on depth, individuals immersed in the operations of freedom. To defend and expand democracy around the world, it will also require breadth.

African Politics Conference Group – APSA Research Development Group call for papers 2022

Along with my good friends, Profs. Yahaya Baba and Abdu Musa, I will be co-leading this year’s Research Development Group of the African Politics Conference Group, sponsored by the American Political Science Association. We are seeking applications for the workshop, which will take place on September 14, the day before the Annual APSA meeting begins in Montreal, Canada.  The deadline for applications is April 10, and selected participants will be notified by the end of April. Most expenses, including air fare and hotel, are covered thanks to generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The online application can be found here.

Prof. Yahaya Baba, Usman dan Fodio University, Sokoto, Nigeria
Prof. Abdu Mukhtar Musa, Islamic
University Omdurman, Sudan.

Selected participants will attend a full-day seminar to discuss and receive critical feedback on an article-length manuscript in progress. Papers will be circulated in advance to allow time for thorough reading. In addition to focused discussions on each paper, the seminar will address strategies and advice for publishing in peer-reviewed international journals and other professional development topics. Over the next several days, participants will be expected to attend panels of interest and take part in the Annual Meeting program. APCG will assist participants in developing personalized schedules to promote linkages with different organized sections, related groups, and other scholars.
Participation in the Research Development Group is open to early-career scholars who are currently based in Africa (those whose primary institutional affiliation is in the US or Europe are not eligible for this program). Up to eight applicants will be selected. APSA will cover most costs of participation for invited scholars, including roundtrip airfare, hotel accommodation, and conference registration fees. Visa fees are not covered. Please note that we are planning for an in-person seminar at this time; however, we may transit to a virtual program due to coronavirus restrictions, if necessary.

Political Trust in Africa’s Age of Coronavirus and Coups

The theme of this year’s RDG is “Political Trust in Africa’s Age of Coronavirus and Coups.” Applicants are encouraged, but not required, to submit research that relates to the theme. Papers exploring related topics, such as horizontal trust and social capital, would be welcome.
Theme Statement
Vertical trust connects citizens and officials empowered to act in the public interest. It also links patrons to clients, whose relationships entail reciprocal expectations or obligations. The pandemic and ecosystems of fake news have also highlighted the fragility of popular trust in expertise, including scientists and public health officials. The 2022 Research Development Group seek papers exploring the changing nature of vertical trust in Africa and the implications for democratic governance. Our expansive understanding of trust includes confidence in electoral commissions, the military, legislatures, police, or generalized trust in government. It also may encompass trust in medical professionals, church leaders, the media, or traditional rulers.

The RDG seeks to explore the interlocking effects of recent transformations in state-society relations unfolding manifest in phenomena such as secondary effects of the Coronavirus, popular demands for good governance manifesting in protest, and the return of military regimes as democratic backsliding has given way to outright coups. Has the pandemic strengthened or undermined confidence in public officials? Does trust in government rise and decline alongside other types of vertical trust? Have fiscal strains disrupted clientelist networks, weakening reciprocal bonds between patrons and clients in ways that have been unexpectedly conducive to democracy? And what are the consequences for modern African ideals of governance, given that democracy itself implies a measure of mistrust in order to motivate accountability and participation?
As part of its examination of vertical trust, we are seeking papers that explore regime transitions and pandemic politics in Africa. Such papers could, for example, consider:

  • whether some health regulations have weakened political rights, undermining civil society as a counterforce against anti-democratic or populist elements;
  • vertical trust as a feature of scientific communication and public health messaging around the pandemic;
  • the changing dynamics of trust across different types institutions, for example comparing trust in the military, the police and the parliament to trust in doctors, public health officials and the media;
  • how evaluations of the domestic policy response to the pandemic factored into overall assessments of trust in government. Papers making conceptual contributions, for example identifying distinctions between generalized confidence and particularized trust, or considering the broad theorized relationships between trust and misinformation, are also welcome.

Applications must be in English and include:

  1. The completed online Application Form.
  2. A detailed, recent Curriculum Vitae/resume.
  3. An abstract (1,000 words maximum) summarizing the work-in-progress you intend to develop and share for feedback at the conference. The abstract should outline the main theme of the paper, its methodology, and the data/fieldwork on which it is based. Submissions should not be an excerpt from an already completed work or one that has already been accepted for publication. Research submissions may be derived from an ongoing dissertation but should function as a stand-alone piece. If selected, you will be expected to submit your complete paper of 5,000 – 8,000 words, plus references, no later than August 1.
  4. A list of 3-5 scholars you would like to have discuss your paper.

Applicants must be working on an article-length research project that is at a stage of development which would benefit from intense discussion and critique. The manuscript should be intended for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal (drafts which are intended for dissertation chapters or white papers will not be accepted). Research should not be an excerpt from an already completed work. Solo-authored papers are preferred. We encourage research submissions that are related to the theme statement described above. Women and members of under-represented groups are especially encouraged to apply.

Nigeria-US Joint Civil Society Statement on President Biden’s Democracy Summit

Reflecting upon President Biden’s Democracy Summit, held virtually in December 2021, civil society organizations in Nigeria and the United States have released a joint statement calling upon each government to take specific actions to defend democracy and human rights. During a virtual press conference organized by the Washington-based Nigeria Working Group, signatories explained their reasons for signing and outlined recommendations for the follow-up summit in 2022.

CSOs from both countries called on the Nigerian government to:
–Sign the Electoral Act into law, in advance of the 2023 elections
–Investigate attacks on members of the judiciary
–Ensure independence of local governments, and end illegal caretaker governments
–Implement the findings of the Judicial Panels of Inquiry investigated abuses by SARS
–Guarantee freedom of religion
–Ensure transparent budget monitoring with civil society oversight

Some of the requests directed towards the US Government include:
–Implementing travel bans against Nigerian officials guilty of electoral malpractices
–Use the Global Forum on Asset Recovery principles as a framework for return of recovered assets (such as “Abacha loot”)
–Vigorously enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and press the Nigerian government on the implementation of the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
–Making human rights the centerpiece of US foreign relations with Nigeria

Read the full text of the letter, and see a current list of signatories here.

The COVID-19 Debt Crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Jordan Morrisey

Slowing economic growth and increasing levels of debt painted a relatively stark economic picture for sub-Saharan African countries even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the health and additional economic impacts it has wrought. New approaches to these concurrent challenges is needed to mitigate against the worst effects.

Debt levels across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remained relatively low until around 2012, when only a handful of SSA countries were carrying debt-to-GDP ratios above 50%. Up until this point, the absolute level of African debt had continued to grow, but economies in SSA also expanded, keeping debt ratios within reasonable bounds. More recently, economic growth in SSA has slowed. In 2016, for example, real GDP growth was less than 2% for all SSA countries and in particularly negative territory for oil-exporting states, like Angola and Nigeria, due to low and declining commodity prices for oil-exporting states. Many African countries continued to borrow even though declining growth threatened their ability to repay, which has led to rising debt ratios. At the end of 2017, average public debt in SSA was 57% of its GDP, an increase of 20 percentage points in just five years. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported in May 2018 that 15 of Africa’s 35 low-income countries are either in debt distress, meaning they cannot service their debts, or at high risk of debt distress. Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, growth in SSA for 2020 was projected at –1.6%, the lowest level on record.

Some Factors to Consider
In particular, it is important to look at the changing composition of African debt, the capacity of governments to service their debt, and the role of China as an increasing lender to SSA. Rising concerns about debt sustainability did not slow debt accumulation in many of the poorer countries in SSA. The combined external debt stock of the 30 SSA countries that benefitted from debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) and Multilateral Debt Relief (MDRI) initiatives rose 11% in 2017, compared to 7% in 2016. The external debt stock of these countries has doubled since 2010 (see figure above).

A letter to President Joe Biden, initiated by the Jubilee USA Network and signed by over 260 organizations, calls for expanded debt relief and some cancellation.

The rise in external debt stocks has also outpaced economic growth in much of the region. The ratio of external debt-to-Gross National Income (GNI) averaged 34.2% at the end of 2017, which was over 50 percent higher than in 2010. The GNI of SSA countries in U.S. dollars rose on average 23% between 2010 and 2017, while the combined external debt stock rose 90 percent over the same period. This is illustrated in the figure below.

The combination of higher levels of outstanding external debt and a hardening of overall lending terms due to the rising share of external debt owed to private creditors has been reflected in increased debt servicing costs. By the end 2017, one third of countries in the region had a debt service-to-export ratio above 10%, and in several SSA countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya and Zambia that ratio surpassed 15%.

A distinctive feature of the ongoing rising debt problem in SSA is the composition of debt. Countries are moving away from official multilateral creditors who come with stringent conditions and toward non-concessional debt with relatively higher interest rates and lower maturities. This trend raises concerns around debt sustainability given the possibility of higher refinancing risks—particularly for commodity-backed loans in the event of a commodity price shock—and foreign exchange risks. This debt is increasingly held not by governments but by a large number of private creditors, and interest rates are at market levels. Negotiating debt relief would no longer be a government-to-government affair.

Taking on debt is a strategy for securing revenue to pay for things and government borrowing to finance public investments is an essential part of any country’s macroeconomic toolkit. Over the last two decades, countries in SSA have used this option often, which has led to significant improvements in human development outcomes. For example, between 1990 and 2015, average life expectancy increased, infant mortality rates were halved, secondary school enrollment soared, and infrastructure gaps narrowed. These and other gains would have been impossible without pragmatic spending of borrowed resources. Africa’s increasing public-debt burden, however, means higher interest costs, which divert resources from education, health care, and infrastructure to increasingly pay for the servicing of that debt.

COVID-19’s Impact
While developed nations are using the full-range of macroeconomic tools to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, developing countries in SSA have little monetary or fiscal space to cushion the blow of the systemic shocks cause by COVID-19. Export revenues are falling and access to external finance is drying up, while domestic responses to the health threat will negatively affect tax revenues, which are already insufficient. In the face of a major and truly exogenous shock, governments in many low and middle-income countries must contend with soaring spending needs, declining revenues, and insufficient resources to borrow from to fill this gap. As a result, their ability to meet their existing debt commitments is in serious jeopardy, as can be seen in the figure below.

Calls for debt cancellation, restructuring, and payment moratoriums are growing. A letter to President Joe Biden, initiated by the Jubilee USA Network and signed by over 260 organizations, calls for expanded debt relief and some cancellation. Even traditional skeptics of the efficacy of foreign aid, like economist Dambisa Moyo, have shifted their positions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moyo has called for a modern day “Marshall Plan” for Africa in response to COVID-19. Modelled after the big aid package that the U.S. provided to European countries after World War II, this plan would provide an opportunity to expand Western influence in the region, especially at a time when China has staked out a position as the “pre-eminent geopolitical force in Africa.” This could be an opportunity for the U.S. to re-engage with SSA and gain an ideological and commercial edge over China, mirroring how the U.S. was motivated to create the original Marshall Plan to prevent Europe from aligning with the Soviet Union. In the spirit of the stimulus approach, used in places like the U.S. and Hong Kong, Moyo advocates that donor countries should consider direct cash payments to African households. “The beauty of a direct-transfer approach is that it mitigates the risk of funds being illicitly diverted,” Moyo explains, “as billions in aid have been before, despite all the ‘conditionalities’ that are regularly imposed to prevent this.” This approach could leverage the robust, existing payment infrastructure that makes peer-to-peer cash transfers via mobile phones so popular in SSA, such as with M-PESA in Kenya.

The author is the Deputy Director for Global Operations at AMP Health, a public-private partnership which supports governments in sub-Saharan Africa to build visionary and effective public sector teams, and is hosted by the Aspen Institute. He is also pursuing a Master of Science degree in Development Management at American University’s School of International Service. 

The Advocacy Network on Africa Calls for Urgent Action to end Violence in Ethiopia

The Advocacy Network for Africa (AdNA) is a non-partisan network of U.S.-based organizations and individuals who maintain significant focus on Africa or U.S.-Africa relations in their work. AdNA’s work is rooted in a commitment to Pan-Africanism.
The members of the Advocacy Network for Africa (AdNA) recognize the multifaceted challenges Ethiopia is faced with at this juncture including regional security concerns with neighboring Eritrea, Sudan and also Egypt. The members of AdNA also recognize that Ethiopia is currently going through a transition period.
We are concerned, however, with current developments in the country that need the attention of the government of Ethiopia, the African Union Commission’s Peace and Security Council, the UN Security Council, the United States and the International Community.
Our concerns over the deteriorating human rights and security situation in Ethiopia include: closing civic space; the continued operation of state of emergency structures in certain regions; the rising levels of intercommunal and ethnic based violence; political assassinations; human rights abuses against unarmed civilians; displacements due to conflicts; massacres, and the widespread reports of rape and other forms of gender-based violence in places where conflict has taken place.
AdNA is particularly alarmed over reports of serious human rights violations, including possible war crimes or crimes against humanity, committed during the ongoing conflict between the federal government and allied militia, government forces of Eritrea, and the regional government of Tigray and the ensuing humanitarian crisis which has exacerbated the existing crisis of internally displaced persons.
We call for an end to violence and for the African Union Commission’s Peace and Security Council, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and the international community to act to protect lives and the human rights of all peoples by doing the following:

  1. Urge all parties and peoples in Ethiopia to respect human dignity, to honor international and regional human rights standards as well as humanitarian law.
  2. Secure immediate and unrestricted access to address the humanitarian crisis in Tigray where over 2 million people are threatened with famine.
  3. Establish independent impartial investigations to look into ongoing human rights abuses committed during the Tigrayan conflict and in other parts of Ethiopia, particularly in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Amhara, Somali and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) regional states, including the plights of minorities in these regions. Also support efforts by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to ensure accountability.
  4. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing high levels of incarceration, support humanitarian organizations in their efforts to address the multi-faceted needs of the 2 million and more Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and the incarcerated population throughout the country.
  5. Demand that all foreign troops leave Ethiopia, and resolve regional issues amicably.
  6. Support democratic practice by pressing the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to end the crackdown on opposition groups and the closure of civic space; and demand that all opposition groups in Ethiopia commit themselves to non-violence.
  7. Promote freedom of expression, assembly and association including by creating an enabling environment for CSOs to advocate on human rights. Provide transportation access, lift the Command Post structures that continue operation in many areas and that have been linked to systematic and egregious human rights violations with impunity, and in consultation with local communities develop alternative security structures.
  8. Call on the Ethiopian government to ensure transparency and access to credible information on the situation in Tigray, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and other parts of the country to avoid misinformation and disinformation regarding the situation by immediately restoring full internet and telecommunication services.
  9. Call on the government of Ethiopia to ensure full due process rights for all those arrested as well as the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
  10. Call on the government of Ethiopia to ensure all conditions conducive to free, fair and peaceful elections, ending the disenfranchisement of significant portions of the population by addressing the lack of sufficient preparations and the conditions of insecurity.
  11. Call for an immediate inclusive national dialogue, with all political parties and stakeholders.
    If the current widespread security concerns in Ethiopia go unaddressed, the consequences shall be grave both for the Ethiopian people and for the Horn of Africa. We call on the government of Ethiopia to work with regional and international institutions to take immediate action to address the desperate humanitarian and political crises that are unfolding in different parts of the country.